Though the Garden District has expanded its membership rolls—in the real estate sense—to include such landholders as goth guru Anne Rice and the brilliant decibel-defying rocker Trent Reznor, it is still the bastion of a certain sort of dyed-in-the-linen New Orleanian. Jewish, Episcopalian, Catholic: it doesn't so much matter anymore, though it once did. What will always matter, however, is wealth, or the memory of it, and the ability to knock back gin and know the first names of your dinner partner's parents. In fact, Walter Isaacson's parents still live uptown in the house on Napoleon Avenue where he was raised. "New Orleans is just a magical place full of easygoing folks," Isaacson continues, a bit of his raspy Crescent City drawl still present when someone is kind enough to ask about his hometown. "Ever read A Confederacy of Dunces? That book captures a particular quality about the city. Though I guess you have to grow up eating Lucky Dogs to really get it," he concludes, chuckling at the very thought of the frankfurters one can chance purchasing from street vendors on the town's busiest corners.
On the busy corner of Royal and Common, you can also catch the St. Charles streetcar for a lovely ride uptown into the Garden District. Though many of the nicer mansions are on adjacent streets, you can still see the grand old houses of St. Charles from the streetcar windows. Stay on until you reach the side-by-side campuses of Tulane and Loyola, and you'll come to Audubon Park. There's no better place for a pastoral stroll.
"I missed the sound of that streetcar. It's like when one is raised next to the sea," says Susie Hoskins, an owner of Design Cuisine, among the premier caterers of Washington, D.C. She grew up on St. Charles Avenue and has now returned here, dividing her time each week between the avenue and Arlington, Virginia. Hoskins made her social debut in '59 and correspondingly had 59 parties thrown in her honor, the most of any deb that year.
Hoskins's current favorite pastime is antiquing in the upper-3000-block area of Magazine Street. "Magazine is really undergoing a renaissance. There's something here in every price range; there are even Beanie Babies," she remarks with that Southern combination of sweetness and disdain. Hoskins enters Lucullus, the well-known shop specializing in French culinary antiques. "Look at this piece!" she exclaims, inspecting a gloriously dilapidated cupboard labeled GARDE-MANGER, CIRCA 1840, FROM THE PYRENEES REGION. Next, she raises a rather squat piece of glassware, attempting to peer through it to the chandelier above. "Too clunky for my taste," she remarks, careful not to tip the silver strainer poised on the absinthe glass's sturdy lip.
Susie Hoskins's shopping list . . . PLUS
New Orleans Auction Galleries (801 Magazine St.; 504/566-1849). "If formal's your style, this is your place."
Jim Smiley Fine Vintage Clothing (2001 Magazine St.; 504/528-9449). "Wonderful little black dresses."
Cole Pratt Gallery (3800 Magazine St.; 504/891-6789). "Local contemporary artists."
Mignon Faget Jewelry Design (3801 Magazine St.; 504/891-2005). "I love Faget's vermeil banana-leaf pin."
Uptowner Antiques (3828 Magazine St.; 504/891-7700). "Beautiful French country things. Check out its neighbor Wirthmore Antiques for more of the same."
Lucullus (3922 Magazine St.; 504/894-0500).
Anne Pratt Designs (3937 Magazine St.; 504/891-6532). "Spectacular large jewelry in silver."
Neal Auction Co. (4038 Magazine St.; 504/899-5329). "One of my sources for estate art and jewelry."
Favorite hotel: "The Ritz-Carlton is opening this summer in the incredible Maison Blanche building. It'll give the Windsor Court some competition. But I always suggest the Soniat House [1133 Chartres St.; 800/544-8808 or 504/522-0570; doubles from $175]; it's charming, cozy, and has the flakiest biscuits."
Best rice and beans: "They have to be smoky and creamy. Try Mandina's [3800 Canal St.; 504/482-9179]."
Epiphany isn't just a drag queen's name
New Orleanians twiddle their thumbs all through Christmas, their minds racing forward a dozen days to Twelfth Night, when Carnival can officially begin. No one throws a better Twelfth Night party than Henri Schindler, the Carnival historian who has written the most essential of the town's coffee-table tomes, Mardi Gras New Orleans. He also designed the Mardi Gras floats that adorn the floor of Harrah's new casino on Canal Street, and has a book coming out soon about the elaborate invitations of past Carnivals. Schindler rents out the ballrooms above the bar and restaurant, the Napoleon House—built in 1814 by Nicholas Girod and offered in 1821 to Emperor Napoleon as an alternative to his exile on Elba—and fills them with an assortment of revelers. It's hard to tell the uptown socialites from the denizens of the Vieux Carré, for anyone not masked or costumed is barred from entering.
"The night of Epiphany is for those of us truly serious about Carnival," says Schindler, using the term that Catholics, in this most Catholic of American cities, prefer for Twelfth Night. Schindler himself is dressed as a Chinese mandarin. His authentic persimmon-colored robes are elaborately brocaded, and a peacock feather bobs from behind his broad-brimmed hat. A feral little half-mask sits atop his delighted face. The jazz combo he has hired cranks out a peppy rendition of "St. Louis Blues." Booze is downed. The tempo is upped. Couples are actually doing the Charleston. Décolleté costumes are loudly admired. Two males break into a tango. Jim Smiley, owner of his namesake vintage clothing store on Magazine, is wearing floor-length vestments used in an Order of Odd Fellows initiation at the turn of the last century. "Fun, it would seem, is serious business," he dryly remarks, his voice muffled behind his long-nosed mask.
Draped in a club chair in the ballroom's vestibule is a girl wearing a slightly frayed ball gown to its very best advantage. Her mask is made from the same beige silk and shimmering beads as the rest of her ensemble. When told how lovely she looks, she says with the sweetest of slurs, "This was my great-grandmother's Epiphany costume. It's my first time to wear it. Family tradition. I turned eighteen last year. They made me put it on. I'm just—I don't know—a little overwhelmed. I waltzed earlier uptown with a masked man who wouldn't tell me his name. The men all insist on disguising their voices. I could have been dancing with my daddy for all I know." She lifts her mask to wipe away a tear. She lights her own cigarette. She sighs. "It's all so silly and wonderful and too, too much."
Richard Ford welcomes a gentleman caller
It has been raining all Sunday afternoon in the French Quarter and finally the clouds begin to part, allowing the remaining light to lap at this hue-addled part of town. It is a gentle light, tender, really—too tender, in fact, to test the hangover-subsiding determination of those emerging from their walled gardens to set off on their weekly strolls toward the top of Bourbon. They're all headed for yet another early Sunday supper at Galatoire's, which is one of this city's more preciously held traditions, along with "making" one's uptown groceries at Langenstein's, and suffering through another New Orleans Saints season.
Just a few blocks down from Galatoire's, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford graciously receives a visitor in the parlor of his 1840's town house. Tourists—a covey of warbling Germans—flutter by outside as Ford settles into a blood-red taffeta sofa situated perfectly between the parlor's lavishly sashed front windows. Above him is a silk screen of an old Paris Review cover. Books, of course, are all about, including an opened edition of Middlemarch, his current reading, left atop a sturdy little writing desk just big enough for a man's laboring elbows. On the walls are several original WPA-sponsored photographs by Eudora Welty, who has named Ford the executor of her estate.
"I hear the tourists walking down Bourbon all the time," he says. "I'll be sitting here reading, and one of them will say, 'Oh, I wish I knew what it looked like in there.' If I ever hear that, I go right out and bring 'em inside and say, 'You want to see what it looks like?Come on in and look!' I assume they all think there's a room in here full of pictures of popes, and the ashes of a Pekingese dog on the mantel. When, in fact, it's just me, reading and watching a football game on TV. Not anything exotic. It's certainly not George Dureau's place," he says, citing the city's most infamous artist and photographer.